MOSCOW Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, owner of the New Jersey Nets basketball team, was elected leader of Russia's Right Cause party on Saturday and vowed to overtake the Communists as the No. 2 political party.
Metals tycoon Prokhorov's leadership of the pro-business party, which supports a second term for President Dmitry Medvedev in 2012, marks the first appearance of a powerful businessman on Russia's political scene in almost a decade.
After oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky was arrested and stripped of his fortune in 2003, under the presidency of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin who is widely expected to run for president again next year, business leaders have followed an unspoken rule to maintain their distance from politics.
During his acceptance speech before more than 170 party members in Moscow on Saturday, Prokhorov criticized Russia's one-party rule while maintaining that Right Cause is not an "opposition" party.
"Our country is called the Russian Federation, but by structure it is an empire. Only presidential power works here, and this kind of governance cannot provide stability let alone development," he said, promising to steer Right Cause into the parliament during elections later this year.
"We need to take back parliament. In the near future, become the second largest party, and then later, the first," he said.
Prokhorov, who has good relations with the Kremlin and whose net worth Forbes estimates at $18 billion, also said he would like to exclude the word "opposition" from the party's lexicon.
"Our citizens associate the word opposition with marginal groups that have long lost touch with reality, not with political parties," he said.
Putin's ruling United Russia party holds 315 of the 450 seats in the Duma, the lower house of parliament. Right Cause was formed two years ago and has no seats in parliament.
Prokhorov earned a fortune from selling a one-quarter stake in mining firm Norilsk Nickel just before the 2008 financial crisis.
He has a 17 percent stake in the world's largest aluminum producer RUSAL and a 30 percent stake in Russia's top gold miner, Polyus Gold.
(Writing by Jessica Bachman; Editing by Janet Lawrence)